The battles of Birmingham

'I have a dream' about a novel that tells the story of the civil rights movement, but this isn't it

Sena Jeter Naslund has proven that she can make minnows swim like whales. In her previous novel, "Ahab's Wife," she hooked a single reference in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and pulled up a spectacular story of female triumph, full of transfigured myths, legends, adventure, parody, and tragedy. That remarkable feat of reimagining makes the failure of her new novel, "Four Spirits," all the more surprising.

Once again, Naslund has pursued a leviathan subject, but this time its elements reside in our historical rather than literary memory: the civil rights movement and the violence in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1960s. In a grandiose author's note that some close friend or trusted editor should have prevailed upon her to strike, Naslund writes that "Four Spirits" - after 40 years of planning - will "fill the gap in the landscape of American fiction" still left "despite many documentary and nonfiction treatments." With her new novel, she announces, we finally have the long-awaited "comprehensive treatment of the civil rights struggle." Even Ahab would blush.

There's no pleasure in watching this project sink beneath the weight of its pretension and earnestness. While jumping through trials and triumphs, dozens of bombings, and countless acts of courage, the novel rotates through a schematically organized collection of characters or "types": a white liberal, a disabled woman, a New York Jew, a black vet, an evil Klansman, an abused wife, a black preacher, a Peace Corps volunteer, a middle-class black woman, an angry single mother - a veritable Benetton billboard of the civil rights movement.

Periodically, they pass by some singular landmarks of the mid-1960s: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., the castration of Judge Aaron, or the sit-ins at various diners and buses. These events flare up impressively in the novel, but they don't burn long or provide much light. The characters in "Four Spirits" seem incapable of competing with or even complementing the historical giants and cultural earthquakes of this period, and the novel suffers a pathological inability to distinguish what's interesting from what's irrelevant. For long sections, I felt trapped in the minor details of minor characters while history played on television in another room.

The story revolves around the liberal and romantic notions of Stella Silver, a young woman orphaned as a child and now living with her aunts in Birmingham. Determined to contribute to the struggle for social progress, she gets a job at a night school for black men and women of all ages to get their GEDs. She's in love with a pious young man named Darl, to whom she says things like, "I only seek closeness for warmth, against the chill." Nevertheless, "her palm," Naslund tells us, "loved the unfamiliar grain of the cloth of his trousers, and underneath, the firm flesh of his buttock just beginning to flare."

In worse moments, we're made to endure Stella's sentimental analysis of race and class issues. Pulling into a gas station, for instance, Stella pities the attendant she's never seen before: "He has grown old, wasted his life bending and smiling. This job has broken his body and spirit. Stella hated what life had dealt this nondescript man named Ryder, how life had cheated him, left him ignorant, fit only for this, a greasy black rag streaming from his hip pocket. Grease the color of midnight splotched his blue trousers. Love his humanity, she enjoined herself."

It's entirely possible, of course, that a melodramatic, sheltered young graduate would speak and think like this, but throughout the book Naslund establishes no narrative distance from Stella, nothing to help us appreciate Stella despite her pompousness and naiveté. In fact, she's so impressed by Stella's "store of grief" and "her erratic heart" that she ends up unintentionally mocking the girl. Passages from Stella's diary - "This dim light filtering into my chamber swaddles me and asks for words" - are particularly embarrassing. When she remembers a college professor asking, "What is humor?" we can only regret that he didn't finish the lesson.

The night-school job brings Stella into contact with several other idealists, white and black, and the novel begins to cohere a bit once it stops trying to capture the entire city's trauma and concentrates instead on this modest academic program. There's Cat, determined to teach and maintain her courage despite a progressive neurological disease that keeps her wheelchair bound. Christine is a potentially interesting character trying to overcome her anger at white America. And Lionel Parrish, the principal, provides a study of a black man torn between his idealism and his lusts.

But other characters, particularly the evil Klansman Mr. Ryder or the good Christian Mrs. LaFay, seem to have stumbled out of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," stripped of their original passion, wearing only the thin garb of political correctness required of allegorical saints and monsters. Hefting this legacy of heroism and terrorism, Naslund rarely manages to force her characters beyond the clichés.

By the end, when Stella is engaged to a third (!) young man whom she barely knows, "she fears only that what is real - her life, her love - might be imagined." But the real tragedy here is that her life and her love - and the lives and loves of all these people - have not been imagined deeply enough.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to Ron Charles.

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